Extreme overfishing and environmental damage has greatly reduced the number of species in the sea, spurring more consumers to demand sustainable seafood and posing a major challenge for companies across the globe to protect this billion-dollar industry. It is a clear decision for retailers: sustainability represents an investment in corporate reputation and assures a long-term, sustainable business; if there are no more fish to sell, their businesses are finished.
And there is much at stake. The fish industry is a sector of great economic and social importance, as millions rely on it as a source of income and nutrition. It remains the most traded commodity, worth around $102 billion in 2008. Unfortunately, the widespread belief that fish was an unlimited resource provoked extreme fishing activities without any or little control or regulation, and the situation worsened in recent years. Now, the long-term sustainability of most edible fish species known is at risk.
It has been documented extensively, particularly by English researcher and writer Charles Clover in his book, End of the Line: Where Have All the Fish Gone?, how fish-capture records and the intensive fishing practices and technology developed over several decades has depleted the abundance of large oceanic fish by 90 per cent globally since “large scale fishing” began in 1952.
Today's modern fishing techniques, with radars and highly sophisticated electronic devices in industrial vessels, hunt down every known edible fish species, and many others. Airplanes and fishing vessels that track schools of fish illegally are so well technologically equipped, that fish have no chance of escaping.
Annually, the long-lining industry sets more than 1.3 billion hooks. Bottom trawlers, which drag nets across sea beds and coral reefs, cut down everything in their path including the inedible, such as sea fans, corals, and sponges.
The unintentionally caught or "by-catch" include sea birds, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, sharks, whales, and dolphins. More than six million tonnes of dead by-catch are tossed back into the ocean each year.
Mr. Clover warns that if this continues, the oceans will be devoid of edible fish and many other valuable species by the year 2048.
But a definitive stop in all fishing activities and seafood purchases would bring negative consequences and affect the livelihood of millions who make a living in this sector. Organizations such as FAO (the United Nations Organization for food and agriculture), MSC (Marine Stewardship council), governments and private organic label certification agencies (Naturland, Ecocert, AB, Soil Association) are working on alternatives to reduce the effects of overfishing, through providing organic fish labels for aquaculture managed in a more controlled and responsible way.
Organic fish production is assessed by independent certification bodies and is based on a group of standards that assure the use of only organic raw material, low densities, control of water effluents, reforestation, hygiene and absolute traceability. Organic seafood is usually 35 to 40 per cent more expensive, mainly because it is more labour-intensive, as operations need to be audited annually. The feed meal has a higher price. It is prepared with fish powder, fish oil and organic-certified grains such as soy, barley and wheat. Specialists are studying other options to reduce the price of the fish meal, such as cotton, banana powder, rice peel and coconut.
Meanwhile, different standards for organic certification have been developed, some by public authorities such as The French Ministry of Agriculture, USDA and the European Union and others by private organic certifiers such as the Soil Association, Naturland, Hungary BioKontrol, BioGro and Bio Suisse. Due to the rise of private standards, the European Union has issued a unified regulation that applies to all organic seafood produced or to be imported into the EU members.
In the USA, the National Organic Standards Board also approved standards for seafood that would allow organic fish farmers to use wild fish as part of their feed mix, provided it did not exceed 25 per cent of the total and did not come from forage species, such as menhaden.
Sustainable fishery, which includes the management, catching, processing and trading of fish stocks, is also on the rise. It is performed in estuaries, marine reserves or specific limited zones in the oceans, where fishermen apply techniques that assure the long-term sustainability of the biodiversity without reducing species’ capacity to keep their population at healthy levels and without impacting other species from the ecosystem. As organic aquaculture, sustainable fishery is assessed by independent bodies that represent NGOs, governments and private companies and is based on a particular set of standards.
In 2002, at the United Nations Sustainable Development World Summit, governments from all countries agreed to set into practice the Conduct Code for responsible fishery until 2015 with the objective to recover the global fish population. The Conduct Code for responsible fishery from the FAO represents a complex collection of principles, goals and elements for actions provided to governments, industries and fishing communities to help develop their fisheries and guarantee the best possible supply of fish for future generations. However, most of the governments are far from reaching a consensus among their nations or determining the best way to include these regulations without affecting dramatically their current industries.
For private labelling, the most recognized organization that works in the identification and control of these products is The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). It was founded in 1997 by Unilever and WWF to create a market-based solution to the problem of overfishing. Since 1999, it has operated as an independent, non-profit organization. The MSC standards are consistent with the ‘Guidelines for the Eco-labelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Wild Capture Fisheries,’ adopted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
However the difficulty consumers face is the question of which companies to trust. There are varying standards, although most of them have similar principles. The choice should ultimately be made based on clear consumer information about retailers and companies known for having a solid corporate responsibility program.
More countries are now taking initiatives to preserve the ocean environment and precious fish stocks. In France, Denmark and Italy, production of organic shrimps has increased significantly. In France the number of farms has risen by 100 per cent and production of organic trout is estimated to be more than two per cent of its entire production. Sales of fish products from sustainable sources in Germany and the United Kingdom are growing and increasingly available in supermarkets.
At the European Seafood Exposition (ESE), one of the most important international fairs and business platform for the industry, this year it was clear the sustainable and organic movement is quickly taking priority. It was evident that the number of products with a bio-label or a blue sustainable tag has increased, as well as the number of companies switching their conventional brands into MSC or bio-certified products. The WWF was also presented with a stand to raise awareness about the importance of a strong Common Fishery Policy for Europe. There's no doubt: sustainability is quickly becoming top concern for all, from the fishing industry to the retailer and the end consumer.
Projects that set example of sustainable fishing include:
Arapa S.A.C., Peru- Trout production and processing plant in the Iscayapi community operating since 1996 in the Province of Azangaro, Puno. Trout is farmed in the pristine waters of Lake Arapa following organic aquaculture international standards to protect the environment and without the use or intervention of external chemical, agents, or pesticides during the production stages of growing, processing and marketing.
Danforel, Denmark - Europe's leading producer of smoked trout fillet products, and a major supplier of organic trout fillets. All of its primary produce comes from Danish organic fish farms, which are subject to the most rigorous environmental demands in Europe. Animal welfare and well-being is a first priority in organic fish farming and strict demands are made with regard to care and water quality.The company follows strict traceability of all procedures and has made a strong commitment and effort to the protection of the environment.
Deutsche See, Germany -National market leader in seafood manufacturing and commercialization. To preserve global stocks of fish, Deutsche See has implemented procurement requirements that guarantee traceability and transparency. The product line is regularly reviewed for endangered fish species as well as for the possibilities of using fish from certified, sustainable fisheries, organic fish and fish from aquaculture.
Nazca Institute, Ecuador –Is a private, non-profit, non-governmental organization with the mission to deepen the knowledge on the marine-coastal ecosystems of the tropic-equatorial Pacific and to promote the conservation of biodiversity as a value of worldwide importance. The Institute works with communities to develop sustainable artisanal fishery models by developing strategies for the sustainable use of marine resources, to ensure the long-term well-being of humans who depend on them.
DOM Intl Ltd., Canada - Specializes in importing and distributing sustainable and organic seafood products for the North American market. DOM organics Atlantic Salmon Portions and Fillets are raised using all-natural, eco-friendly methods and are certified organic. The company's main strengths include eco-friendly farming procedures, designed to work in harmony with existing ecosystems; adherence to organic farming standards with annual audits and certification by EcoCert Canada; fish pens are located in waters with high tidal exchanges, preventing waste build-up and ensuring cleaner, healthier waters; fewer fish per cubic metre means more room to swim, leading to healthier salmon; Fish meal is derived from by-products of open-sea fish caught for human consumption; naturally occurring yeast (phaffia) is used in the feed to give the salmon its attractive red colouring.
Alaska, USA -Has one of the most abundant sources of wild fish in the world, which live their complete life cycle in their own natural environment and feed themselves from a natural marine diet. All Alaska seafood is wild, and all of it is sustainable. Unlike many of the world other fisheries, Alaska’s are managed for protection against overfishing, habitat damage, and pollution. By proactively ensuring a healthy, wild and sustainable harvest, Alaska claims it has helped to preserve and protect its superior seafood for future generations. Alaska’s major fisheries include: Salmon (King, Sockeye, Coho, Keta, and Pink), Groundfish (Cod, Alaska Pollock, Sole, and Flounder), Halibut, and Crab King, Snow and Dungeness.